The workings of a democracy are never pretty, but in 1994 the process of governmental sausage making couldn’t even be cloaked in a sleek interface.
In the spirit of remembering those halcyon days, feast your eyes on the 1994 Texas Budget Simulator created by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and lovingly preserved by the Internet Archive:
The Texas Budget Simulator does exactly what the box says, which is to say it’s a gussied up actuarial table. Actually, it’s barely gussied up. This spreadsheet is only a game insofar as it will not have real-world consequences. In that respect, any government tool can become a game if you give it twenty-one years. Less charitably, these tools are games at the time when they are first introduced, but it’s too gloomy to think about them as such.
What, exactly, is the difference between Texas Budget Simulator and a game like SimCity? Mechanically, I submit that differences between these two are few and far between. Both games are fundamentally concerned with the allocation of scarce resources to achieve goals. That’s economics for you. Texas Budget Simulator is ironically incapable of really simulating those outcomes, but the underlying idea remains the same.
The real difference, then, is all about storytelling. SimCity and its ilk are spreadsheets come to life. The bulk of their information is intra-diegetic; you learn from the story and signs within the gameworld. Texas Budget Simulator, on the other hand is entirely extra-diegetic: it tells where other games would show. Do you have a question? Here’s another readout! In the last 21 years, city-building games (or state-builders, for that matter) haven’t come all that far in terms of mechanics. The real change, as Texas Budget Simulator will remind you, has been in their storytelling strategies.